Is Traditional Publishing a Dead End?
Happy New year!
I can think of nothing more appropriate than to start the year off with a call for patience, perseverance, and understanding.
Like most of you writers, I feel the querying pain. Whether it is frustration over manuscript wish lists that all sound identical when you read them, titles on the shelves that tell the same story over and over, or the agonizing fear that your work is DOA because it’s nothing like what’s already out there, I hear you.
Initially, I thought I was the only one feeling this way and berated myself for being the gardener of sour-grapes. That changed as I talked to writers at conferences, writer’s groups, critique groups, and so on. Without any prompting on my part, authors were telling me they were seeing same things. Relieved, I realized I am not the only one.
Let me stop here for a moment and tell you that, if you are expecting a rant against agents, you won’t find it. I have sent out loads of query letters and talked to many, many agents and have yet to meet one who was rude, disrespectful, or unprofessional. Maybe you have, but I absolutely haven’t. My take is that agents, just like writers, are feeling the same sense of frustration. At least that is what they are telling me when they let their hair down to chit-chat “off the record”. So, if it isn’t an agent thing, all that’s left is a larger industry thing.
That was my mindset when I came across a multi-post Twitter comment by Maria Tureaud. Maria is an editor and writer with loads of industry experience. You can read about her on her web-page (https://mariatureaud.com/about/), and check out her Good Reads page at https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/59224281-the-last-hope-in-hopetown.
As I said, I was fascinated by her analysis as to what she believes is going on with publishing. So much so that, with her permission, I collected all the individual twitter posts and assembled them here. My hope is that we as writers start 2022 with realistic expectations and wisdom that only knowledge can bring. Without further ado, please chew over Maria’s analysis on what is happening in the publishing industry. If you have an insight or comment you’d like to make I encourage you to do so. If you are an agent or work for a publisher, even better!
Success and Joy in 2022. Make it your year!
It's time for some real talk on this Friday morning. Publishing might be opaque AF, but if you want some peace of mind about what's been going on in the query trench for the last **checks wrist** two yrs, read on. Some are NOT going to like what I have to say.
Let's start with the following: The reason it feels like querying and pitch contests are "dead" is NOT "because writers aren't writing good books right now." If anything, competition is fiercer than ever because you are all so damn talented #writingcommunity.
To get to pitch contests, and address that discourse, we first have to talk about wtf is going on. Let's start with the pandemic, and the impact of it. News outlets and crap online use the word "pandemic" like it's something that happens. It doesn't.
NONE OF US have ever experienced a pandemic, and neither have our parents. A pandemic is the WOLRDWIDE spread of an infectious disease, and the world hasn't experienced anything like it since the 1918 flu. We've been through epidemics, NOT pandemics.
What does that have to do with anything? It means the world ground to a halt, and we're all going to have some form of PTSD. It also means businesses didn't know what to do, and they all implemented emergency plans that, in hindsight, weren't very wise.
One such industry is publishing. So how is that affecting querying? **Rolls up sleeves** Let's start with an observation. This is a personal opinion: Publishing has never invested in kidlit. There, someone had to say it.
From salaries, hiring practices, and most importantly, diversity, publishing has always used the profits from its kidlit imprints to fuel massive adult advances, and neglects to cultivate its bottom line through investment. **I can already see the pitchforks**
I'm just an author and editor, what do I know? Well, I'm not speaking from a place of emotion, folks. Before I was able to edit full-time, and before I dared call myself an author, I ran multi-million dollar business. I know a thing or two about bottom lines, and corporations.
So, what's happening? Kidlit publishing professionals started leaving the industry in droves in 2019, not 2020. Fed up with low salaries, ridiculous workloads, and the lack of diversity/change each individual hoped they could achieve, they were forced to leave.
So in 2020, when the pandemic hit (and we already established publishing doesn't invest in its top earner: Kidlit) publishing used the excuse of uncertainty to tighten its purse strings. That means that when people left (and in 2020/2021 they are DEFINITELY still leaving)...
...the higher-ups made the conscious decision NOT to hire replacements. Imagine your own workplace. Now imagine 2, 3, or 4 people left due to MH, shady HR practices, microaggressions, and general burnout. NOW envision the following: the bosses decided not to replace those ppl.
What would happen? In publishing, that means the following: editors had to shift focus to their already established lists. Much like with agents, editors read their submissions on their own time, but now they were doing the work of 2, 3, or 4 people.
This means they had to adopt "orphaned authors"--authors whose editors left the industry--and take on their colleagues' lists. It also means that acquisitions of debut authors slowed, because in order to foster the talent already contracted, they HAD to refocus their priorities.
Are debuts still being acquired? Yes? Is this simplified? Yes. But I have to establish this before I can talk about the trickle-down effect. I'd also like to state the following at this time: the editors still there were happy to do this work. They loved their colleagues
This isn't on anyone who left, it's on the hiring boards, and those making the decisions. They made the conscious choice not to change practices/hire replacements. Authors on submission have noted the following: 1. Slow AF response times 2. Rejections that feel unreasonable
What do I mean by "rejections that feel unreasonable?" Rejections based on elements in the mss that could easily be fixed. This speaks to the workload, & how they're not taking on anything that either requires a lot of work OR that they don't LOVE, love. Sound familiar, queriers?
So, what does that mean? With editors not acquiring at the rate they used to, because they literally don't have time (versus money), agents have slowed in their own acquisitions of authors. The days of throwing spaghetti at the wall to see what sticks are over.
Disclaimer: This is an observation within the kidlit community. Adult still looks healthy.
I'm not saying anyone with an agent is spaghetti. Landing an agent is hard AF. What I AM saying is that if editors aren't acquiring at the rate they used to, then neither can agents.
It's math. If an editor acquires 3 debuts a year, and a single agent signs, say, 10 debut authors (about avg), then 7 of them will "die on sub." No one wants that, not authors, not agents, not editors. Your books MATTER. They are beautiful and joyful and the world needs them.
THAT'S why this year has been HELL on querying authors (& debuts on sub...we don't talk about that on main, but sub is querying with higher stakes). That's why so many agents closed to queries for chunks of the year. No point staying open if there's no point sending things on sub
It's also the reason there's this feeling that "pitch contests are dead." They're not. The "cropping up" (to quote THAT video) of small pitch contests has actually created more opportunity for authors to be seen. These contests focus on diversity, marginalization, and genre.
THEY ARE NEEDED! And they allow agents searching for particular genres/wanting to champion diverse voices to wade through a smaller pool of pitches with what little spoons they have left (everyone's suffering mentally). Agents are stressed. With pubs slowing acquisitions...
...they have less opportunity to earn money. The whole industry is ridiculously symbiotic. They WANT to sign you. They LOVE your book. But now they have to take what's happening in the NYC houses into account before requesting/offering.
So, if any of the following has happened for you in the last 2 years, I need you to pop the bubbly and shout it out: 1. Had a partial request (YOU LUCKY DUCK!) 2. Had a full request (WHAT IS THIS SORCERY?!) 3. Received feedback with a rejection (OMG THEY LOVE YOU AND YOUR BOOK!)
That's literally a massive win (especially feedback...that's unicorn-level stuff these days). SO WHAT CAN AUTHORS DO? Write a good book, and have a great sub package. That's all you can control. And now it's time to talk about the elephant in the room.
The toxic culture of "pushing through." They say you need to distract yourself by writing a new book. KEEP WRITING, they yell. Well, I'm here to tell you to stop. Don't. Unless it gives you joy, feel free to take a damn break! You deserve one. You need time to grieve and heal.
These past 2 years have been hell, and writing through the wait is no longer a viable piece of advice. Hell, go on strike! VIVA LA REVOLUTION! Why am I saying this?
You can only query one mss at a time, and I personally know writers who have "written through the wait" and now have multiple books ready to query (that's how long the wait has BEEN). So, give yourself some space. Publishing is slower than ever.
Read books. Plot books. Study craft. That one thing you struggle with? Work on
It. Publishing will still be there. Pick up a new hobby. Find joy. DO NOT PUSH THROUGH. You're hanging on by a thread, my friend. I know, because I am too.
"Just self publish if you're sick of waiting." Don't you DARE! Self publishing is NOT a solution if you're not prepared to run a business. Self publishing is HARD OMG! You need capital and marketing strategies and distribution and a good head on your shoulders.
If you want to self publish, and are prepared to either succeed or fail, and you have a business plan, go for it. But kidlit generally doesn't do well in that space. You need to be available in stores, you need to get on librarian lists.